It’s rare that we get to celebrate a victory here, especially in the mortgage and foreclosure arena, but we saw one this week. Down in Florida, where the anti-foreclosure activist movement really took root, one of the worst judges in the state lost her job, and many of the same players had a role in the defeat.
It’s hard to achieve a reputation as the worst foreclosure judge in Florida, the home of the “rocket docket” and other abuses of due process, but Palm Beach County Judge Diana Lewis had a claim on it. The best way to get a sense of her judicial style is to read this transcript excerpt:
Mr. Stopa: Judge, you acknowledged yourself, on multiple occasions, on the record, that, you know — Initially, you had multiple times where you said you were ruling for the defendant, and then you said if you didn’t, it would be reversed. I’m not arguing with you, but my point is that I think there are legitimate grounds to go to the Appellate Court, and before my client is divested of the property and a third party purchaser tries to buy it and, potentially, take possession, ultimately to potentially be removed, then a stay should be entered so that we can pursue our right on an appeal…Lewis basically embodied the concept that homeowners with arrears are automatically deadbeats, and that the actual procedures of law establishing property rights, existing for over 300 years in America, meant absolutely nothing. There’s not even the semblance of impartiality here; foreclosure cases simply move to final judgment by default. Not to mention that she was boorish, rude, and dismissive of people simply trying to have their day in court. Here are a series of testimonials – the words “vile,” “despicable” and “disgrace” frequently crop up.
The Court: You’re welcome to do that.
Mr. Stopa: Can I submit you an Order that grants a stay?
The Court: No. Your stay is denied.
Mr. Stopa: On the issue of stay, can I ask for an explanation, or what have you, because, you know –
The Court: My job is to move cases.
Mr. Stopa: I’m sorry?
The Court: My job is to move cases and that’s what I’m doing.
Lewis comes from a political family; her father was a state senator with a focus, paradoxically, on homelessness. There’s a homeless facility in the area with her father’s name on it, and the running joke among the legal community is that his daughter kept it well stocked. Lewis won a judicial election in 2002 and was up again for re-election this year. Jessica Ticktin, a 35 year-old foreclosure attorney with experience in Lewis’ courtroom, decided to challenge her.
Ticktin insists there was no single incident or case that made her decide to go after the jurist who took the bench the same year Ticktin graduated from law school.This is a typical take from Lewis. The lawyers she harassed and demeaned in her courtroom every day simply had to be unqualified. But when so many lawyers have the same complaint, it’s obviously indicative of the problem.
“It’s not just me or my law firm,” she said. “It is a problem many, many attorneys in Palm Beach County and out of county attorneys have experienced with this judge. They and their clients were treated unfairly and inappropriately. Her demeanor is a big problem.” [...]
The flap is mainly over her use of the results of biannual surveys the county Bar Association takes, asking its members to evaluate local judges. In the most recent survey, 147 of the 216 attorneys who responded said Lewis’ judicial demeanor needs improvement. Almost half — 99 — gave her similar marks for impartiality and 74 said she should do more to enforce standards of professionalism. The results were similar in surveys conducted in 2011 and 2009 [...]
She said she suspects most of the complaints come from lawyers, like many of those in Ticktin’s office, who appear before her on foreclosure cases. Many are ill-trained, never having had the advantage of being mentored by older lawyers, she said.
The legal community across the state backed Ticktin, as did several editorial boards. “At some point in her current six-year term, incumbent Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Diana Lewis’ reputation for rudeness stopped being a forgivable quirk and became an embarrassment for the judiciary,” said the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Activists, lawyers and ordinary Floridians donated money and time to Ticktin’s campaign (here’s an example). I’m told that friends of the blog Lisa Epstein and Michael Redman stayed on their feet in the hot sun on Tuesday for several hours, encouraging voters to choose Ticktin over Lewis.
It paid off. Last Tuesday Ticktin defeated Lewis 54-46. My spies tell me that Judge Lewis was more peevish than usual on the bench the next day. No matter; she won’t be there much longer.
One judicial election certainly does not make up for the outrage and human tragedy that has defined this foreclosure crisis era. But it feels good to see some measure of justice prevail, at least by subtracting one of the worst of the worst in bank-loving judges. It does show that the spirit of the movement that gave its best shot at forcing accountability on the most powerful forces in America remains alive. They may have gone local, they may be focused on small and unheralded issues, but they can still pack some force. Just ask ex-Judge Diana Lewis.